More to the Fire Story

In seemingly every fire event, whether in Western North Carolina, Gatlinburg, or California, a familiar story is told in the media. In this story, wildfires are monstrous, demonic forces sweeping up and down mountains, engulfing homes and anything else unfortunate enough to find itself in the path of destruction. The firefighters battling these blazes are warriors, fighting an enemy that threatens the life and well-being of those in its way.

Parts of this story are very true. Firefighters battling wildfire are indeed bravely protecting their communities. For those who lose homes or loved ones to wildfires, such an event is devastating and life-altering. Yet the larger narrative at play suggests that humans have no ability to control structural losses from wildfire-a narrative contradicted by a wealth of research on how wildfires ignite man-made structures.

The reality of wildfire is that, like any fire, it is a physical process that is understood well. Research from the US Forest Service, insurance industry, and others has provided a roadmap for homeowners seeking to protect their home from wildfire damage. The recommendations based on this research center on the fact that property owners should manage the 100-foot area around their home, often referred to as the Home Ignition Zone. Taking actions such as spacing out vegetation to prevent high-intensity fires from reaching areas close to the home and removing flammable materials (like accumulated leaves or unmaintained plants) from the direct area of the home that could ignite from embers enable structures to be much more resilient to fires. While a home can never be 100% safe from any fire damage, such actions can significantly decrease risk. Resources for homeowners on how to decrease their risk from fire abound, from the Firewise program to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

This is certainly not to say that the damage wildfire leaves behind and the pain it causes those affected should not be covered in the media. Yet in Western North Carolina, as in most of the country, fire is going to be a part of our future. It is imperative that, in addition to telling the story of those painfully affected by wildfire, we tell the story of how to prevent that pain.